VSU Professor Testing Foreign Grain in Virginia Soil

By Shelby Mertens, The Progres Index

ETTRICK — A Virginia State University professor is researching a foreign superfood grain that may soon be taking global markets by storm.

Vitalis W. Temu, of VSU’s Agricultural Research Station, is conducting a two-year study on Eragrostis tef — more commonly called teff grain — to see if it could be a profitable crop in Virginia.

Temu received an $18,534 grant from the Virginia Agricultural Council to pursue his project earlier this year. He began his plots in July.

Teff, which originates from Ethiopia, is a tiny grain similar in looks to quinoa, but Temu said it is even more nutritious. The grain is naturally gluten-free and would benefit vegetarians and vegans who rely on meatless proteins.

“It’s very rich in iron and protein and that is unusual for most grains,” Temu said. “Sometimes it has been nicknamed a green egg because of how much protein you can get from it. It’s about 14 percent protein.”

Teff also has high calcium, dietary fiber and a good assortment of amino acids. It is mostly used to make flour. The grain can also be used as animal feed.

Ethiopians have been harvesting teff for centuries and it has largely been a best kept secret until the last decade or so. The Guardian reported there is an estimated 6.3 million farmers in Ethiopia and over 20 percent of farmland is dedicated to culivating teff.

Temu believes teff may become the next popular superfood. In recent years the consumption of superfoods like quinoa and kale have boomed.

“People are becoming more and more conscious of what they eat,” he said in regards to teff’s widespread appeal.

As like the other superfoods, farmers will have to pay a hefty price for teff right now. Temu estimated the price for brown teff to be $4 per pound and $2 to $3 per pound for the ivory variety.

“It’s like two or three times the price we pay for corn,” he said. “It’s highly priced, that’s for sure.”

However, lack of research has many farmers weary of the grain. Teff has been experimented in the U.S. for forage as well. Temu said harvesting teff can also become difficult because of its small size paired with wind gusts, the grain can lose quality.

“People became disinterested so not much has been done on grain production,” he said. “Everybody says good things about forage production from teff, but when it comes to grain production, not so many.

“You just have to have one farmer successful and others will follow suit,” Temu added.

Another challenge, Temu said, is battling grass weeds from the teff plots. Some of his plots have become filled with crabgrass that is similar to teff in size and height. He said late season planting usually helps deter weeds, but it can be especially tough if the crabgrass already has a presence. He has found so far that the ivory teff has fared much better against weeds than the brown kind.

Teff also happens to be drought-tolerant, making it highly suitable for the dry summer months in Virginia, Temu said.

Temu is experimenting with four different soil types to see if soil is a factor that determines teff's nutritional value.

“We’re hoping in Virginia, we have red soil and in the tropics where this originates we have red soil,” he said. “So we’re trying to see if the iron content, which is unusually high, is also associated to the soil in which it is grown.”

Temu said if he can prove the best quality of the grain comes from red soil, it could have tremendous economic impacts in Virginia.

“If that happens to be so, then Virginia will win it,” he said. “The red soil is unique to Virginia so our teff would have a premium price, that’s the hope.”

Temu is working with local small farmers in Suffolk and Halifax counties who will use his teff.